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Mental health resilience: the scaffolding of life

17 May 2023

For Mental Health Awareness Week, Transform and Thrive’s Lucy Whitehall explains how to build resilience to stress and anxiety.

Mental health resilience: the scaffolding of life
Resilience building is a lifelong adventure. Image credit: Shutterstock

Think of mental health resilience like a building or a structure.

Ignored, it will likely perform perfectly well for quite some time, with limited external intervention.

But sooner or later close attention needs to be paid to the infrastructure to ensure it remains flexible, strong, and functioning at its best.

A daily check in with your resilience levels will ensure that whatever comes your way, you will remain flexible and adaptable.

Hopefully, most of the time, life will be interesting and joyful. However, a life well lived will have tough periods too.

Banishing stress and living without adversity is unrealistic.

Thankfully, there are proven ways to buffer ourselves from the negative effects of stress.

After all, resilience building is a lifelong adventure.

‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’?

How many times have you heard this saying?

There’s some truth in this trope.

Perhaps you’re going through hard times right now, as you’re reading these words. And if you aren’t, I bet it wouldn’t take you long to think about previous challenging periods.

Whether you’re a student or many years into your career, you’ll have intimate knowledge of how stress feels for you.

It’s natural to want to rid ourselves of stress because it is such an uncomfortable state.

Pressure vs stress

Clients will often ask me whether some stress can be good for us.

As always with psychology, the answer is ‘it depends’!

We certainly benefit from pressure, which helps us to function and perform optimally.

Without pressure, we’d become unmotivated and unfulfilled.

However, when pressure tips into stress, we need to find effective and sustainable tools to help manage it.

Poorly managed stress leads to burnout, and nobody needs that in their lives.

Resilience is NOT about ‘bouncing back’

Are you the same person you were before you failed that exam, lost that job opportunity, or experienced that bereavement?

Probably not.

Contrary to popular myth, resilient people don’t bounce back to where they were before adversity struck.

After life’s challenges, you’re a wiser version of the person you once were – you’ve changed and will have learnt something about yourself and your capacity to deal with trouble.

You may even have surprised yourself with just how much difficulty you can withstand.

The ’secret sauce’ to a richer life

Resilience is our buffer against the unforgiving knocks and storms of life.

We often think of resilient people being different from the rest of us mere mortals.

The media is full of inspiring stories of triumph over adversity.

But what if resilience was our default state?

Surprisingly, Dr Ann Masten and her colleagues discovered that human beings have a natural capacity for resilience, referred to an ‘ordinary magic’.

As a species, humans have positively adapted to adversity.

Resilience isn’t a static resource. We need to nurture our resilience reserves with exposure rather than avoidance of difficulty.

So, is there a prescription for resilience?

Although it’s tempting to think that if we simply tick things off a list, we’ll have achieved this state called resilience, annoyingly it doesn’t work like that.

Everyone will have a slightly different combination of non-negotiable practices and activities that build their resilience resources.

I encourage you to discover and develop yours.

Here are a six essential pillars. How does each one show up in your life?


Forget all that media hype about leaders thriving on 4 hours sleep a night.

Humans need good quality sleep.

Regular brain breaks throughout the day are also essential.

Remember, even when we think we’re doing nothing, our physical, psychological and emotional systems are hard at work, resetting and readying us for the next creative problem to solve.


The research literature on regular physical movement leaves us in no doubt that whatever your level of ability, movement is good for us.

If you can get outdoors for your activities, that’s even better!

So called green and blue spaces (being outside in nature) adds an additional wellbeing boost as humans are biophilic (love of living things).


There’s plenty of evidence supporting the energy boosting (and depleting) properties of certain food groups.

It’s worth considering what impact your food and drink is having on your energy levels.

We don’t have to be saintly about our food and hydration – just intentional.

Mind tools

We have thousands of thoughts every day, many of which are helpful and supportive.

However, we’ll also notice unhelpful thoughts from time to time which can be debilitating for our mental health.

Although we cannot stop these thoughts, we can find ways to gain understanding and perspective so we can master them rather than be controlled by them.

From cognitive behavioural techniques to acceptance and commitment therapy, from meditation to mindfulness – there’s a plethora of evidence-based tools to add to your resilience toolbox.


Regardless of whether you consider yourself an introvert, an extrovert or somewhere in the middle, humans are a social species.

Research has demonstrated that without meaningful connections in life our energy levels deplete, and we are more prone to physical and mental illness.

While it’s not necessary to have armies of friends and family to live a healthy life, we do need a few close people.

Cultivate these relationships – they matter deeply to our psychological and emotional wellbeing.


It’s a common misconception that creativity is the reserve of the gifted few.

Thankfully we don’t all need to be accomplished artists or authors to develop our creative streak.

Creativity can be found in your work, gardening, cooking the evening meal, thinking of an original gift for a loved one, solving a puzzle with your child, or planning your holiday.

Curiosity is a strength strongly associated with creativity, and maintaining a keen interest in the world around you boosts this curious approach.

Did you know?

The ICE's Benevolent Fund can offer workplace and wellbeing support through a range of services available to members and their families. Some former members may also qualify for support.

Find out more

  • Lucy Whitehall, the wellbeing coach for senior leaders at Transform and Thrive Ltd